James B. Young and Elliat Rich in the Elbowrkshp with their children, baby Golda and Ace.
By KIERAN FINNANE
The first thing you notice on entering the studio-come-workshop is the wall display of shoemaker lasts. Then your eye drops to the machines, in particular one, backlit by the window onto the street, which emphasises its curvilinear shape and antique solidity. Straight away you sense in the space a love and respect for finely wrought objects that also serve a functional purpose.
This is much more than a matter of atmospherics. These are the tools of trade for the first bespoke shoemaker in Alice Springs in 50 years, James B. Young. The sculptural machine by the window is a sole-stitcher, over 100 years old. It would have originally been powered by a steam engine, with the electrics added in the 1940s. In a previous life it was used in the creation of hundreds of thousands of pairs of shoes in a Northampton, England, factory: “Built to last,” as Young observes.
Alongside the window is a display shelf, showing Young’s range of shoes and boots as well as some bespoke work-in-progress. Elegant lines and forms, beautiful leathers, an attention to fine detail that gets capped off with his maker’s mark – two brass studs in a place of his choosing. He makes for women and men, although the majority of his orders so far have come from men.
The footwear sits among a number of signature items created in collaboration with his partner Elliat Rich, already known for her design work in Alice Springs. Their thinking is that not everyone who comes to Elbowrkshp (Elbow Workshop) – as they have dubbed the space – will want to order hand-crafted footwear but they may well want to take with them a souvenir of their visit, something reflecting the philosophy and aesthetics of this creative pair.
To meet the foreseen demand, Young has developed, for example, his own recipe for dubbin, a product used to soften and waterproof leather. Its main ingredient is camel fat, harvested from culled camels and which he renders himself. Rich then sourced the attractive round brass tins to package it, and designed the label, with its delightful branding, ‘Fat of the Land’.
It is superior in quality to most commercial dubbins, whose petro-chemical base eventually rots the stitching of leather goods. But like everything in Elbowrkshp it has a back-story. It speaks of this place, of course, and of a response to one of the desert’s environmental challenges – the presence of a large and growing feral camel population and the possible resource that represents. It also links back to a seminal experience for Young and Rich, a camel trek 15 years ago, from Bathurst to Broken Hill via the Snowy Mountains. They were on the road, or rather stock routes, for 11 months.
It was formative in their decision to ultimately make their home in Alice Springs, the heart of the arid lands they’d come to love, and it set in train Young’s canvas and leather fabrication. Rich’s grandfather, a tailor, had given them an industrial sewing machine and they set about making all the camel gear they needed for the trek. Young later found a client for his camel saddles, the Outback Camel Company, which he continues to service to this day.
One of the small things they made for that trip has inspired another of their signature items: a hand mirror. The glass is protected by a lightweight wooden base and a soft kangaroo leather cover. Young still has the original mirror – which only cracked when he dropped something on it. The flap was a piece of canvas, roughly stitched, and stapled to the wood. The flaps for the new mirrors by contrast are beautifully stitched; there are copper studs instead of staples; and they snap shut with an inlaid magnet.
From this kind of making to shoes and boots is a big step. To take it, Young and Rich with their little son Ace packed up house and moved to Adelaide for 18 months where Young undertook a Certificate IV in Custom-made Footwear at the Adelaide City TAFE. This is the last course of its kind in Australia, when they were once common to many of the technical colleges in the country. Adelaide was formerly the centre of shoemaking in Australia; 20 years ago there were 30 shoe factories there; today only R.M. Williams and Rossi Boots survive. The course has now been reinvented to focus on the small-scale production of bespoke footwear.
Determined to make the most of his time there, Young also found an outside mentor whom he spent time with each week, Eugenia Neave, a woman with two decades of experience behind her and who’d studied under the best in the business. As well, he scoured the city for machinery and materials, finding the treasures that are now installed in Elbowrkshp, like the mid-50s West German post-bed for stitching uppers – “the Rolls Royce” of its kind – and the “skyver” for bevelling leather edges and folds.
Young has had to learn to service and maintain the machines but he has also developed a “support network”, of mostly elderly men who once plied their trade in Adelaide and other Australian cities. Among their number until recently were the Perkal brothers from Sydney. Masters of their craft, these survivors of the Holocaust made shoes and boots for the likes of Mick Jagger, Jack Mundy, Kerry Stokes, the Packer family. The carefully documented lasts for these famous clients were among the many thousands in their workshop. To visit it offered a fascinating snapshot of post-war Sydney history, says Young.
When the Perkal brothers passed away, Young was invited to purchase machinery and leathers from their estate, mostly the product of Australian tanneries no longer in operation and of a quality now unobtainable outside a handful of small European tanneries. Young was also gifted a large number of lasts to add to his library. When they arrive he will have around 600 pairs, some of them 40 and 50 years old. The lasts are what is used to set the heel height, the toe shape, the basic pattern of the shoe, he explains.
The detailed patterning of the rest is quite a technical process, which will “keep me learning for decades”, says Young. It is part of the challenging “depth of design” that has drawn him to the shoemaking craft. There are separate patterns for the uppers and lining, the heel, the insole, the outsole, all of them conforming to the client’s exact measurement and requiring a marriage of comfort and style. A mock-up shoe is made in cheap leather to make quite sure of the fit before Young proceeds to work on the final product.
There are probably 10 bespoke shoemakers of repute in Australia at the moment. Young does not yet put himself in this bracket but it is where he intends to be, as a designer-maker. At present he has enough orders to keep him busy into late in the year, with most clients having heard about him through word-of-mouth. Three-quarters of the orders are for one-off bespoke shoes and boots, rather than from his range. Sometimes people want him to make a new pair identical or similar to a treasured old pair; at other times they have something very specific in mind, which leads to a collaboration on the design between maker and client. The process plays out over three fittings. Interstate clients may see Young in Alice for him to take their measurements. If they can’t travel, once again he falls back on his support network to take the measurements for him.
Rich meanwhile pursues her separate design practice, split between commissions, work for exhibition and now, work for the space she and Young are creating.
Right now, she is one of 12 Antipodean designers taking part in The Other Hemisphere exhibition in Milan, design capital of the world. Her contribution is the Decennia Chair, designed to become more beautiful with age – the reverse of what happens with most objects we buy these days, even the most expensive.
The elegantly simple wooden chair, initially white, is coated in many layers of soft lime paint which slowly wears away to reveal colour and pattern underneath, individualised according to the shape and posture of those using it (photo above, by Geoff Sumner). It prompted one reviewer to describe Rich as working with the “poetry of humble pleasures”. And the chair obviously also builds in a comment on sustainability, asking for and rewarding commitment from the user for decades to come.
Another work looks set to gain national, if not international exposure. This is the Melody Fence developed by Rich in collaboration with musician Bree van Reyk for Ross Park Primary School in Alice Springs. It has been picked up for production by Urban Art Projects, who are looking to place it into new interactive urban landscapes.
With a number of other public art commissions in Alice behind her, Rich is currently working on a couple of graphic design commissions and has an upcoming exhibition at Araluen, Ghost Gum, in collaboration with ceramicist Mel Robson (opening late May).
She is also developing the prototype of a pendant lamp in copper with a fabricator in Adelaide. This kind of product design with a view to commercialisation is a new dimension to her practice, provoked in part by the reality of now raising two children – a daughter, Golda, was born last year, shortly after the couple’s return to Alice Springs.
Elbowrkshp is in part a response by Young and Rich to the ‘work-life balance’ question. They wanted to get away from the “9 to 5 divorce” but are now finding the pattern is something like “7 to 6, six days a week” – in other words, the typical small family business.
They appreciate working together, collaborating on the Elbowrkshp signature items and giving each other valuable feedback on their separate projects. As Rich says, there are so many decisions to be made during the often solitary design process: “It’s really helpful and a relief at times to be able to share it.”
They have both learned “the power of ‘no’” – but also the diplomacy required to make it pass.
So, where is this buzzing hive of creativity and can you visit? It occupies the corner tenancy of 8 Hele Crescent, home also to RAFT Artspace, the art suppliers Chapman and Bailey, and the unfolding vision of a creative precinct being developed by Mike Gillam and Maria Giacon.
“It is such a privilege to be part of this bigger picture, to be incorporated into the understanding of the town and the amazing vision of its potential that Mike and Maria have,” says Rich.
As for visiting, everyone is welcome to the launch of Elbowkshp on the Saturday after Easter, April 26 (from 10am till noon). Thereafter you can visit by appointment, although when baby Golda is a little older, there will be regular times when the studio is open to the public.
Right: Amongst the footwear are signature plates and shallow dishes, bearing the Elbowrkshp logo. The plates are moulded from a typical tin camping plate; the dish, from an antique shaving dish. They are made from bovine hide, embossed, salted and dried, resulting in an individual patina for each.
Note: RAFT Artspace is opening its new show, the first for the year, on the same day. Boards from the Edge by Kayili Artists, from Patjarr in the Gibson Desert, will coincide with a fund-raising show of wood block prints by Ngipi Ward, Fred Ward and Jackie Giles. Proceeds will go towards buying a much needed Troop Carrier for the art centre.